How to Tell an Epic Story in Five Everyday Steps

We already know the power of telling a great story for our clients. We want to sell that punch-in-the-gut moment, the horse and the puppy Super Bowl tear-jerker, time and time again.

I was reading an article recently, however, about what comprises an epic relationship. The author surmised, nicely, that at a distance sweeping romances and lifelong relationships are, indeed, epic, but upon closer look, are made up of 20,000 everyday Wednesdays.

It made me think that in marketing and PR, we are always looking for the next big story, or the next great angle on our product, service or business.

Awesome. That’s our job, and it’s why the people who are making sure their products or services actually work are paying us to take care of this part of the business.

But a truly sweeping story–the ones that snare us from the first gripping sentence to a neatly resolved “the end”–can’t always be full of narrative climax.

Every story has an arc or dramatic structure, and each piece must fit together with the whole (what good old Walter Fisher would call narrative probability). Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright, identified five parts of the dramatic arc after studying Greek and Shakespearean dramas.

Each part serves to push the audience through the story, and each part–though some parts less narratively sexy than others–plays an important role in how effectively the climax or main idea of the story is conveyed to the audience.

1. Exposition

In this part, important background information is laid out for the audience. You could also call this “context.” Either way, it’s an essential part for building a story that makes sense.

2. Rising Action

This part of the arc is the series of events that build immediately upon the background information and begins to lead the audience toward the point of greatest interest. Interestingly, this part of the arc is arguably more important than the climax, because without these events, the climax will not make sense, will feel jarring…or, frankly, the audience won’t care about the climax in the first place.

3. Climax

This part of the arc is the big moment people talk about after the movie is over, or that “turning point” where things go from bad to good…or sometimes bad to worse (in the case of a tragedy like Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare was dark, ya’ll.)

4. Falling Action

This part of the arc is “what’s next,” where we see if there is a win or lose situation based on the climax, and how characters respond to the “big thing” or turning point in the story.

5. Resolution

In this part of the arc, all conflicts are resolved, characters return to normal life, and there is a pervading sense that the big events that got us here might still shape the future, but they are firmly in the past.

Critics of Freytag’s model are quick to point that this arc only applies to tragedies or dramas, but personally, I’m a big fan of allowing any storytelling theory to be a guide for the way we do PR and marketing.

I’m also a big fan of any model that very closely resembles a sales or buying cycle, and how those models might give us deeper insight on how we might anticipate where customers are in the cycle, and deliver the information they need before they know they need it.

For example, a customer at the very beginning of the sales cycle who is unfamiliar with a brand or product is going to be in dire need of exposition (“Who are you and why should I care?”) whereas a customer who is familiar with a brand or product’s key selling points might need that extra “what’s next” information or story (“Your product sounds great…how does it positively or negatively affect my life?”).

When we can think of the stories we tell as larger parts of the whole, we can more ably tell the smaller stories that pack a little less punch, because we know how they play into the narrative arc.

So tell that epic story. Just remember epic stories are composed of just a few heroic moments…and 20,000 everyday anecdotes.

Written by Sarah J. Storer. Sarah has been a fan of stories ever since she memorized ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ at the ripe old age of three. Today she channels that passion to help individuals and businesses tell their stories with heart. Learn more at or follow her on Twitter @sarahjstorer. Visit where this excerpt is originally appeared.

Tips for pitching yourself your own story ideas

Each week, Evan Peterson rounds up stories from across the Web that scribes of all stripes should check out. 

Sell yourself on your own ideas, learn from Michael Lewis’ writing habits, think before you type, and embrace “clickbait.”

Pitching yourself: If Internet articles about writing are any indicator, the hardest parts about being a scribe is actually finding the time and motivation to write. The next hardest part, then, has to be the most important: having something to write about.

In a given week, there are probably 15–20 topics that I consider writing about but dismiss because I’m not convinced they’ll be good posts (or because there’s not time). Sifting through these ideas to find the best can be paralyzing. (“If I begin writing that, then I won’t have time to write this.”)

Blogs without Blah, a consultancy in the U.K., offers tips on pitching yourself each of your stories to determine the pieces worth publishing. If you’re already indecisive, being the writer and the editor may not be the right solution, but it might at least help you figure out some headlines.

Michael Lewis on writing: Michael Lewis released his latest book, “Flash Boys,” this week about high-frequency trading to some debate. Whatever you think of the issue, you can bet it’s a good read because above all, Lewis is a writer and storyteller. He talked with Bloomberg this week about his approach:

You’re just trying to get your particular vision down on the paper. You learn something in the world, you try to explain it to a reader and do it in your voice.

Writing is thinking: This piece from The Huffington Post is about how writers are the heroes of our time because, unlike science and technology, writing provides lasting stories with recognizable character traits. There are a lot of things writers feel at the keyboard. It’s unlikely that heroism is one of them. What struck me about this piece was something Richard Vetere mentioned on the way to making his point:

And writing never ends, meaning writers are always writing even when they are not doing it physically. Their entire being is directed toward working out in their minds and in their hearts the story they want to tell.

So much of writing happens when you’re walking around, eating lunch, reading. By the time you’re ready to type, you know how your piece is going to look, or at least how it’s going to start.

“Clickbait” is not new: This piece falls outside the seven-day window I try to stick to, but because it addresses something I highlighted last week, writers’ getting paid for clicks, it’s worth including here.

It’s not all that surprising to hear that editors have sought to entice eyeballs through headlines for a lot longer than the Internet has been around. This piece from Deadspin focuses on the negative connotation placed on “clickbait” headlines, explaining why they’re not only not bad, sometimes they’re completely necessary. Old-school journalism—say, before 1960—was very much the same as what we’re seeing now.

It’s any way of presenting a story that doesn’t follow the dreary precepts that prevailed in high-end U.S. newsrooms over the last half-century—a period, incidentally, of widespread newspaper consolidation that allowed those newsrooms to be just as self-serious as they liked in the absence of any real competition. It’s anything anyone might actually want to read.

In other words, competition breeds the necessity for strong language and imagery, and in the end, people need to read what you wrote.

Writing headlines is an art form. Measuring clicks is just technology.

Evan Peterson is a writer based in Chicago, and the editor of OpenMarkets magazine at CME Group. He’s on Twitter at @evanmpeterson

(Image via)

The first version of this story appeared on via @PRDaily